5 Elements Theory - Pathway to internal and external harmony by Heather Reade

This month we have another guest blog: 

The 5 Elements Theory 

is by our esteemed colleague and friend Heather Reade (MFHT) . 

Heather has been teaching Tai Chi and Qigong since 1999 in England and the US and provides courses for the NHS, in addition to Active West Lancs, MacMillan Cancer Care; the U3A; Twinkle House Sensory and Wellness Centre and primary schools in Liverpool and Lancashire. 

In 2009, she created Water Lotus Qigong, a hydrotherapy, which has been used in the US and UK for the alleviation of pain, arthritis, and fibromyalgia. She is also, a qualified Sports Therapist, and Ear Acupuncturist. 

To find out more about Heather and to request any further information, please visit website Heather Reade School of Tai Chi and QiGong


The 5 Elements, or Wu Xing (woo sshing), is a system used to categorise and explain patterns of transformation in the universe. 

Wu Xing 五行 

Wu = five 

Xing = movement, transformation, phase

Dating back almost 4,700 years ago, the 5 Elements were identified and discussed in one of the oldest medical textbooks in China called the Huang Di Nei Jing (Yellow Emperor’s Classic). At that time, ancient scholars conceived that the universe was composed of five elements or forces that enabled us to stay in harmony with our internal and external environments.

The 5 Element system outlined the relationships and interactions between physical phenomena in our world and named those elements as wood, fire, earth, metal, and water.

This system was widely used in astrology, music, military strategy, martial arts and most significantly, Traditional Chinese Medicine. It continues to this day, providing us with a wisdom for maintaining balance physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

Photo: Yellow Emperor’s Classic  

How is it applied to well-being?

It is helpful to appreciate that the 5 Elements are actually about ‘processes’, ‘phases’, or ‘transformations’ because they represent things in our world that are constantly shifting and changing. The 5 Elements Theory highlights for us how to identify and work with those changes for optimal well-being.

Each element is ‘paired’ or associated with a season, colour, body structure, body organ, emotion, and movement. (There are more ‘pairings’ than those named here, but for now this is more than enough). When one understands the associations between these pairings, one can live harmoniously and maintain a healthy lifestyle that is in tune with the nature of the universe. 

As the Yellow Emperor’s Classic states, “From ancient times it has been recognised that there is an intimate relationship between the activity and life of human beings and their natural environment”, (Ni, 1995, p.8)

Descriptions of the 5 Elements:

Please note, some words in the text below (such as the body organs) are capitalised in the same manner one would find in Traditional Chinese Medicine textbooks.

The Wood Element describes the actual trees and plants and is paired with the season of spring and the colour green.

It represents a period of germination and emerging vitality.
 
Within our bodies, Wood is connected energetically to our ligaments, sinews, and eyes and is paired with the body organs Liver and Gallbladder.

Emotionally, Wood refers to our ability to ‘see’ our goals, and to ‘push through’ obstacles and to persevere; much like the new shoots push through the soil to emerge and grow into plants.

Wood is associated with anger and frustration when out of balance, and with assertiveness and patience when in balance.                 

In Tai Chi/Qigong, it represents the movements of flexing and extending.

To keep the Wood element in harmony, take time to exercise to release pent up energy, and find ways to positively express your needs, rather than ‘holding things in’.

Fire Element describes the burning flame---from a candle, or forest fire. It is paired with the season of summer and the colour red. 



It represents the full blossoming of life, brimming with energy.

Within our bodies, Fire is paired with the Heart and Small Intestine and is energetically connected to the tongue and blood vessels.

Emotionally, it refers to our “warmth” towards life and others. When it is in balance it represents love, joy, contentment, and our ability to live wisely. When out of balance, cruelty, and a loss of connection to oneself and to others becomes apparent.  

In Tai Chi/Qigong, it represents movements that flow upwards, as well as the connection between movements and concepts.

To keep the Fire element in harmony, find ways to express yourself through creative activities and avoid loneliness by volunteering or joining social groups. Practicing the art of ‘self-kindness’ will guard against your thoughts becoming too critical and limiting.

Earth Element describes the planet, the soil, the crops, and home. It is paired with the season of late summer and the colour yellow.



It represents an in-between seasonal period in which crops ’dampen down’ and come to fruition.

Within our bodies, it is paired with the Spleen and Stomach, and is energetically connected to the muscles and mouth.

Emotionally, it refers to our ability to digest food as well as life’s experiences. When out of balance, it represents worry and anxiety. When in balance, one has a sense of safety, security, and abundance.

In Tai Chi/Qigong it describes movements that are supportive, stable, and balanced.

To keep the Earth element in harmony, it is essential to avoid long-term (chronic) stress and anxiety. Maintaining stability and balance in thoughts, actions and self-care will help prevent burn-out and the depletion of Earth energy.

Metal Element describes not only silver and gold, but also  crystals, essential minerals, and interestingly, our breath.  It is paired with the season of autumn and the colour white.

It represents a period where leaves and seeds fall, crops are harvested and collected, and the air grows colder.

Within our bodies, Metal is energetically connected with the nose, skin, and hair and is paired with the Lungs and Large Intestine.

Emotionally, it refers to our ability to ‘let go’ and evolve. When in balance, Metal is associated with self-awareness and mental clarity; when out of balance, it results in excessive grief/sadness and ‘dwelling in the past’.

In Tai Chi/Qigong, it represents movements that descend and disperse.

‘Pining for what could have been’ can deplete Lung and Metal energy, so cultivating an ‘attitude of gratitude’, recognising your accomplishments, acknowledging what is ‘going well’ in life, will help maintain a positive perspective.

Water Element describes the oceans, the rivers, the rains, water vapour/clouds, as well as the water contained within our bodies.

It is paired with the season of winter and the colour black, (or very dark blue). It represents a period of retreat, contemplation, hibernation, and regeneration.

Within our bodies, it is paired with the Kidneys and Bladder, and is energetically connected to the ears, bones, and marrow (including the brain and spinal cord).

Emotionally, it refers to solitude and our ability to incubate and re-nourish. When out of balance, Water is associated with fear, but when in balance it represents courage.

In Tai Chi/Qigong, it represents movements that spiral, and flow downwards.

To keep Water in harmony, it is important to understand that the Kidneys are the ‘reserve pool’ of vitality in the body, supplying extra Qi to the organs when needed. Avoid pushing yourself beyond reasonable limits, such as working or exercising too much—the typical “work hard, play hard” approach to life. Make time to catch up on sleep and incorporate restful mental and physical activities into your daily routine.

 

5 Elements quick reference table:

 

WOOD

FIRE

EARTH

METAL

WATER

SEASON

spring

summer

late summer

autumn

winter

COLOUR

green

red

yellow

white

black

CULTIVATION

emerge

grow

fruition

reap

restore

ORGANS

Liver/

Gallbladder

Heart/Small Intestine

Spleen/

Stomach

Lungs/

Large Intestine

Kidneys/

Bladder

BODY STRUCTURE

sinews/eyes

tongue/

blood vessels

muscles/

mouth

skin/hair/

nose

bones/ marrow

EMOTIONS

anger/

patience

cruelty/joy

worry/

security

grief/

clarity

fear/

courage

MOVEMENT

flex/extend

upwards

supportive

dispersing

spiral

 The universe is always moving, changing and our environment and lives follow those patterns of movement and change. Winter becomes spring; Water becomes Wood; stillness shifts into movement; fear gives way to perseverance, (Black, 2021).

Reflect on the phases of your day; reflect upon the changes in your emotions and how you adapt to situations. Practice your Tai Chi/Qigong and notice how your movements change and flow. The 5 Elements provides the framework for understanding and adapting to those changes, both obvious and subtle.

Resources:

Chen, Yuan (2014). Legitimation Discourse and the Theory of the Five Elements in Imperial China. https://www.academia.edu/23276848/_Legitimation_Discourse_and_the_Theory_of_the_Five_Elements_in_Imperial_China._Journal_of_Song-Yuan_Studies_44_2014_325-364: Journal of Song-Yuan Studies.

 "Traditional Chinese Medicine: In Depth". National Centre for Complementary and Integrative Health. Archived from the original on 4 April 2017. Retrieved 30 June 2021.

 Hafner, Christopher. "The TCM Organ Systems (Zang Fu)". University of Minnesota. Archived from the original on 6 April 2017. Retrieved 30 June 2021.

Ni, M., 1995. The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine: A New Translation. first ed. Boston: Shambhala

Black, C., 2021. Big Tree Healing [online] https://www.bigtreehealing.com/5-element-theory/ [Accessed: 30 June 2021]

Shen-Nong [online] https://www.shen-nong.com/eng/principles/whatfiveelements.html [Accessed: 30 June 2021]

© Copyright Heather H. Reade 2021. All Rights Reserved

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